Andrew Dys

Andrew Dys: Fort Mill’s 11 killed in Vietnam War showed small town’s toughness

The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall that has been in Fort Mill since Thursday – and remains through Sunday night – carries names from all 50 states. The names of nearly 58,300 men and women from all parts of America are on that wall, including almost 900 from South Carolina.

Fort Mill, which had only about 4,000 people in 1970 in a York County that then had a population of about 85,000, lost 11 troops – a large number from such a small place.

The people who remember those days in Fort Mill, and who lost loved ones, remember that Fort Mill of the 1960s and early 1970s was not what people see now. There was no Interstate 77, no mass immigration of people from the Northeast and Midwest states. Fort Mill was not a bedroom community for tens of thousands who work in Charlotte and Rock Hill.

Fort Mill was a classic example of the tough and patriotic Southern textile town. A pair of Springs textile mills employed much of the population. Fort Mill had “Mill Hill” neighborhoods around those plants that were tough places. The young men who went to war from those neighborhoods were tough, too.

“You were young then, and you saw momma and daddy come out of that cotton mill all wore out, give out, and the way to get out and not spend a life in that cotton mill was join the service,” said Wallace Coleman, a Fort Mill Vietnam War combat veteran. “There was the draft in those days, too. Who went after getting drafted? Young fellas who weren’t going off to college. Many young guys knew they were going to end up drafted, but they joined up before that.”

Unlike larger cities, no anti-war protests were held in Fort Mill. Few people – most likely no people – burned draft cards in Fort Mill. If somebody was drafted from Fort Mill, he put on the uniform because America called.

Of the 58,000-plus people killed in Vietnam, more than a third came from the South. Southerners simply enlisted more, were drafted more, fought more and died more.

“What I saw over there was that the people who came from places just like I did, York County, were brave and tough,” said Frank Walker, a helicopter pilot from Rock Hill who earned several heroism medals in Vietnam. “People in combat came from places like Fort Mill, Rock Hill. Small towns all over the country, but especially the South.”

About 80 percent of those killed in Vietnam were ages 19 or 20, young people not on the way to college, which in those days was not the usual route for most area young men.

“I never thought twice about going,” said Jacky Bayne, an Army soldier from Fort Mill who lost a leg and the use of his left arm in Vietnam. “We were fighting a war, and I went knowing what I was in for. That’s what we did. We joined up, and we went.”

Bayne’s second cousin, Lindell “Butch” Stegall, of Fort Mill, died in Vietnam. Stegall joined the Marines. Others from Fort Mill joined the Army and the Marines in droves.

“Fort Mill was really small then; people knew each other,” said Terry Long Purcell, whose brother, Raymond Long, enlisted in the Army and was killed in Vietnam.

And as so many went to see the traveling wall in its stay in Fort Mill, people talked about how York County and Fort Mill have changed. York County has almost a quarter-million people now. The town of Fort Mill has about 10,000 people. But the Fort Mill area – the township that runs almost to Lake Wylie and the Catawba River and the state line – has tens of thousands more.

Housing developments cover what used to be woods and peach orchards and farms. The textile mills closed in the 1990s and early 2000s. That old Fort Mill, of textile mill hill teens wiry and lean and tough who enlisted before being drafted, might be gone, but it will never be forgotten. Fort Mill might now have a suburban feel, with trendy shops and stores, and one of the highest per capita incomes in South Carolina, as it supports so many people working white collar jobs in Charlotte.

But during the Vietnam War, Fort Mill was its own tiny place on U.S. 21.

“A third of all of them that was killed from York County came from little Fort Mill,” said Coleman, the Vietnam veteran and longtime American Legion officer. “We didn’t get much recognition all those years ago when we came back. And those who died, they didn’t come back. But from Fort Mill, one thing is sure true – we went.”